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Tallon eager to add more pieces to young core

by Adam Kimelman
TORONTO -- Dale Tallon wore No. 19 for most of his NHL career, but he's come to be more associated with the number 3.

That's because for the second straight year, Tallon, the general manager of the Florida Panthers, holds the No. 3 pick of the Draft.

And before that, when he was the GM of the Chicago Blackhawks, he had the third pick of the 2007 Entry Draft. That worked out pretty well, when he chose Jonathan Toews. And the early returns on last year's third pick, defenseman Erik Gudbranson, look pretty good.

Will he have the same success with the third pick this year? Tallon is confident he will.

"I think it's a very good position to be in this year," Tallon told on Monday, the first day of the NHL Scouting Combine. "We're going to get a good player there."

The third pick isn't the only one the Panthers have. For the second straight year, Florida has double-digit picks. After making 13 selections last year, they have 10 picks this year -- besides their first-round choice, they have two picks in the second round and four in the third.

And if Tallon has his way, they'll have even more choices when the teams convene at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., on June 24-25.

"If we can achieve that and get a couple more picks this year, that would give us 24, 25 picks in a year -- that's like four drafts," he said. "That really can set us up or the future and give us a strong foundation. That's what we're doing."

Building from the draft up is part of Tallon's rebuilding plan in Florida, which started a year ago when he was hired. It's the same philosophy he used to rebuild the Blackhawks when he was hired as that team's GM in 2005. In his tenure in Chicago, the Hawks added such key components as Toews, Patrick Kane and Niklas Hjalmarsson, to go along with Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Troy Brouwer and Dustin Byfuglien, who were drafted while Tallon was assistant GM in Chicago.

His work in Florida started last year with Gudbranson, a 6-foot-4, 195-pound defenseman with a powerful shot and a nasty edge to his game. Gudbranson had a strong training camp, but was sent back to Kingston of the Ontario Hockey League when he and the team couldn't agree on a contract. He totaled 34 points and 105 penalty minutes in 44 games, and 5 points in seven games for Canada at the 2011 World Junior Championship.

Tallon said he expects Gudbranson to be in South Florida to start 2011-12.

"We're happy with this development and we'll get him taken care of in the next little while, get him signed up," Tallon said. "He's a big part of our future. He's a core guy for us. He's got captaincy-type material as far as character on and off the ice. We think he's going to be a great player for us."

He has high hopes for his two other first-round picks, centers Nick Bjugstad and Quinton Howden.

Bjugstad, a 6-foot-4, 188-pound center taken with the 19th pick, had 8 goals and 12 assists in 29 games as a freshman at the University of Minnesota, and had 2 goals and 2 assists in six games in helping the U.S. win the bronze medal at the 2011 World Junior Championship.

Howden, a 6-2, 182-pound center taken with the 29th pick, had a team-best 40 goals in 60 games for the WHL's Moose Jaw Warriors and he had 2 goals and 3 assists to help Canada win the silver medal at the 2011 WJC.

They weren't the only successes.

"(John) McFarland had a good second half in Saginaw and (Alex) Petrovic had good numbers in Red Deer. … We're happy with all of them. Every one of those kids we drafted had good years last year in their respective leagues and their development has come along nicely. (Director of Player Development) Brian Skrudland has done a real nice job for us in that regard, keeping an eye on those kids and giving them information and mentoring them and helping them along so they've all had a better understanding of what's expected of them. We're happy. We kept a close eye on them. It's important. We don't want them to get astray and get some bad habits. We want them to get a pro and a Panther state of mind. That's what we're trying to instill in our people. And change the whole perception and culture that we have in Florida."

One of the common factors in last year's draft was a combination of size and skill. Eight of their 13 picks were taller than 6-2 and six weigh at least 190 pounds. This year, however, Tallon said the accent might be placed more on skill.

"Probably going to go for more speed and skill," said Tallon. "That's one thing we don't have a lot of, offense yet. We're going to look at probably the same character and same traits but probably go with more speed and skill to offset the size we drafted last year. But it won't preclude us from drafting some big, strong guys this year.

Tallon sees his renovation work in Florida on same path as the one that ended with Stanley Cup glory in Chicago.

"I think it's very similar," Tallon said. "I think the difference moving forward (in Florida) is the flexibility we have contract-wise. We have, depending on what the (salary cap) floor is, just to get to the floor we'll have to spend anywhere from $28 to $30 million -- that's the difference. That can afford us to get some good 27-, 28-, 29-year-old free agents that can be leaders of our team."

In Chicago he added free agents Nikolai Khabibulin, Cristobal Huet, Brian Campbell and Antti Niemi to his home-grown group. Tallon said he plans on being just as active with the Panthers. One of the positions he'll look at closest is in goal. Veteran starter Tomas Vokoun can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, but the team's top prospect is goalie Jacob Markstrom. Also, backup Scott Clemmensen has one year left on his contract.

"We're going to look at Tomas, we're going to look at everything available," said Tallon. "Free agency, trade, those are the ways we're going to see what best suits our situation with young goaltenders with Markstrom, (Sam) Brittain and (Brian) Foster in our system. We have some good young goaltenders. And Scott Clemmensen is a very good backup goaltender, had a good year for us. We're going to get a top goalie. If it's Tomas, great, but we don't know. We're going to talk to him as well."

Beside the player side, Tallon also needs to find a coach. Since firing Peter DeBoer following last season's 14th place finish in the Eastern Conference, Tallon said it's "been an exhaustive search," but hoped to have a new coach in place prior to next month's draft.

"We've talked to and interviewed a tremendous number of quality candidates," said Tallon. "The good thing is we have a lot of guys that want to come to Florida and see us turn this around. That's the good news."

While he might have a young team for the 2011-12 season, he said he doesn't necessarily need a young coach to grow with his players.

"We need a good teacher and a good communicator," he said. "It doesn't matter, the age. I don't look at age as a factor. … I want to have somebody that can relate to young guys and have respect of elder players."

Once he has that in place, Tallon can work on finding a new number to be associated with.

"I don't want to be picking there (No. 3) ever again, unless we get it in a trade," said Tallon. "We need to start moving up the ladder. Been at the front row enough; it was nice being in the back row. That's the goal."

Contact Adam Kimelman at Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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